Dear Dr. Sylvia

Perfectionism Difficult For Middle Graders

May, 2018

Q

Our gifted 11-year-old daughter confided in us that she doesn’t like herself and is “mad at herself.” She has been having trouble falling asleep for months and is anxious and crabby at home.

While she skipped a grade and is at the top of her class, our daughter has never liked attention called to her academic giftedness. She doesn’t like being the “smart” one at school and would rather have any other label, such as the “star volleyball player” or even the “best speller.” She told us it’s getting harder now to be the smart one, but “she has to be.”

Our daughter is also very gifted in music. She plays the saxophone, never practices at home, yet is first chair in the band and wins first place in competitions. She’s worried that this, too, is going to get more difficult and she won’t find the time to practice. In addition, she plays the piano, but now wants to quit. 

She escapes by playing computer games. We have to coax her away from these things at times to get her to do her schoolwork and she’s miserable. She even said she’d like to hurt herself and is frustrated and depressed. This terrifies us. We haven’t had luck with therapists in the past for her perfectionism, and she doesn’t want to see a professional now. But it seems we need to act on this, and any advice you can give us would be helpful

 

A

 When I conducted my research with over 5,000 middle school children for my book Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report On the Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers (Rodale, 2005), I found many gifted children experiencing similar pressures to your daughter’s. Particularly among girls, I heard about the dilemma of both wanting to do extremely well, but not wanting to get high grades for fear of being left out by the popular students. In our focus groups, girls literally had tears in their eyes as they explained the dual pressures they felt.

It’s important to give pressured children a message about continuing to be honest with themselves, to work at and love learning, but not necessarily to expect to be best at anything. The fact is that no matter how good or smart they are at anything, being best is only a temporary place of great glee and serious pressure.

Help your daughter understand that no matter how good she is, whether it’s in academics or volleyball, there will be those who surpass her. Being the best she can be most of the time and taking some time to relax and have fun will lead her to a more balanced life and far less stress. Perfection in everything doesn’t really exist, and making mistakes is an important part of learning. It would be a great mistake for your daughter to use computer games as an escape from anxiety, although she can certainly relax and enjoy them after her homework is done.

There may be other underlying issues in your daughter’s anxiety — for example, fears or worries about boyfriends. The boyfriend issue begins too soon for this early sexualized generation, and girls may vacillate between wishing for a boyfriend and wishing for a favorite doll. Imagine how confusing that is to both the girl and her parents.

Insist that your daughter get some brief counseling. If she opens up a little about her feelings to someone who understands the pressures of giftedness and perfectionism, she’ll undoubtedly move through adolescence more easily. Adolescence is seldom easy and even more difficult for a generation that launches into adolescence while still in childhood.

Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For a free newsletter entitled So Your Child is Gifted!, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a note with your request to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s articles on this topic and submit family questions online at www.sylviarimm.com. All questions are answered.

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